my take on AfricaGathering in London

I’ve just retur­ned home from Lon­don whe­re I’d been atten­ding Afri­ca­Ga­the­ring on Satur­day 25 April 2009 which was held at Birk­beck Col­le­ge, Uni­ver­si­ty of Lon­don. A per­fect­ly orga­nis­ed event (by Ed Scot­cher & many hel­pful vol­un­te­ers — thx!), the Gathe­ring tur­ned out to be qui­te a suc­cess, espe­cial­ly as it even­tual­ly pro­vi­ded me with the oppor­tu­ni­ty to meet some of my Afri­Ma­tes in real life.

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Kudos also go out to Karo­la Rieg­ler who took lots of pho­tos throughout the day and to @RedZola & @MatthewNcube who both hel­ped me try­ing to get online as the Uni­ver­si­ty­’s WiFi did­n’t work out for me.

So ins­tead of pro­vi­ding you with a sum­ma­ry of all talks (I also pre­sen­ted some sli­des on Afri­Gad­get and could­n’t do any live­b­log­ging), let me just for­ward you to the fol­lowing blogs that alrea­dy did an excel­lent job of blog­ging on the event:

The­re may be even more inte­res­ting posts on Afri­ca­Ga­the­ring. It also hel­ps to do a Twit­ter and/or Flickr search on #afri­ca­ga­the­ring to catch some addi­tio­nal links (Twit­ter Search is a gold mine for anyo­ne inte­res­ted in ppl and their opinions).

Ed also filmed the event and pro­mi­sed to upload some talks to Vimeo this com­ing week — so let’s stay tun­ed for an update. Filming such an event is real­ly sus­tainab­le and hel­ps tho­se who could­n’t make it to Lon­don in time. Ted­dy of ProjectDiaspora.org was also sup­po­sed to attend the panel dis­cus­sion, but stu­pid visa regu­la­ti­ons kil­led this endeavour.

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Some atten­de­es alrea­dy met on Fri­day evening for gre­at Ethio­pian food at Lali­be­la Ethio­pian Restau­rant — inclu­ding David McQueen and Soka­ri Eki­ne. It was very nice to even­tual­ly say hel­lo to Soka­ri, who I’d been spamming with links via delicious.com for the past few mon­ths. Eh, Soka­ri — we will be back to Lon­don in June!

The­re have been so many inspi­ring con­ver­sa­ti­ons and shared ide­as during this Afri­ca­Ga­the­ring that it would seem to be unfair to pick out a few selec­ted ones ‑so I will only add a few words to my own pre­sen­ta­ti­on. I also need to work on my pre­sen­ta­ti­on style as I am bit too ner­vous on sta­ge, often spea­king too fast or having too many details on my mind that I want to inclu­de and then miss out. It was a gre­at oppor­tu­ni­ty though to pre­sent our work and I am also qui­te pas­sio­na­te about it. Oh, and pls igno­re that extra sli­de on a Liver­pool flag as seen in a pub in Garis­sa the other day — unless of cour­se you are like Ken of Kiwanja.net, who­se pic on mobi­le pay pho­nes we’­ve used on one of the slides. :-)

My pre­sen­ta­ti­on on Afri­Gad­get on behalf of the who­le Afri­Gad­get team (remem­ber, it’s a group blog and ever­yo­ne is invi­ted to con­tri­bu­te and share inte­res­ting Afri­Gad­gets — even you!) was­n’t pri­ma­ri­ly focu­sed at dis­play­ing inte­res­ting or fun­ny Afri­Gad­gets even though I intro­du­ced it by say­ing that “we are not here to help anyo­ne, we only do this for fun”.

My mes­sa­ge bet­ween the lines rather was that the­re’s still so much undis­co­ve­r­ed poten­ti­al on the con­ti­nent that needs to be com­mer­cia­li­sed (I hope I got this mes­sa­ge across?). Afri­Gad­get is just the vehi­cle to show­ca­se that the­re are inno­va­ti­ve solu­ti­ons that work on a local level.

The­re’s a new genera­ti­on of young & skil­led workers who grew up with mobi­le pho­nes & an under­stan­ding of how tech­no­lo­gy works. Skil­led IT workers who can alrea­dy take over pro­gramming jobs and deve­lo­pe their own tools.

Of cour­se, IT isn’t the only sec­tor and the­re are other sec­tors that will bene­fit from a new per­spec­ti­ve on deve­lo­p­ment in Afri­ca. I, for one, belie­ve that the upco­m­ing sea cable(s) — which will help pro­vi­ding bet­ter broad­band inter­net access to many Afri­can coun­tries — will also help in pro­vi­ding some incen­ti­ves for the youn­ger genera­ti­on to stay in rural are­as. The inter­net has chan­ged the way we live and work — I am also working as a con­sul­tant from my home office. Con­se­quent­ly, this pro­gress in the IT sec­tor could hope­ful­ly also influ­ence other sectors.

Eco­lo­gi­cal sani­ta­ti­on con­cepts, for examp­le, cur­r­ent­ly work best in rural are­as. And with an incre­a­sing urba­ni­sa­ti­on, things are only get­ting worse. As long as we (humans) do not come up with sus­tainab­le cities and (much) more urban agri­cul­tu­re (as a way to pro­vi­de real live­li­hood for ever­yo­ne), the­re will be a need to “upgrade” rural are­as and crea­te mar­kets in such are­as. Bet­ter inter­net con­nec­ti­vi­ty and the pro­vi­si­on of sus­tainab­le power sup­plies is a way for­ward as it hel­ps ppl to go about their business.

Busi­ness, or the con­su­mer ori­en­ta­ti­on, is my 2nd point on the AG pre­sen­ta­ti­on. I think that com­mer­cia­lism has for a long time been unde­r­ersti­ma­ted in the Afri­can con­text. We need to return to free mar­kets and an under­stan­ding that peop­le knew how to tra­de goods (and make a living out of it!) a long time befo­re out­si­ders occu­p­ied Sub­Sa­ha­ran Afri­ca and intro­du­ced new cul­tu­ral values.

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And by men­tio­ning com­mer­ce, I am not tal­king about dea­lers in a small vil­la­ge who are ALL sel­ling the same pro­duct (like the one pic­tu­red abo­ve whe­re ever­yo­ne sells rice), but ins­tead a healt­hy tra­de of local­ly pro­du­ced goods and ser­vices and much more diversity.

Someo­ne from the audi­ence asked if ppl would also be this inven­ti­ve if they weren’t that poor and could afford to buy “bet­ter” pro­ducts. It’s a tri­cky ques­ti­on becau­se in rea­li­ty it’s often not a ques­ti­on of being rich or poor, but rather the avai­la­bi­li­ty of afford­a­ble solu­ti­ons. If you just can not buy enough wel­ding machi­nes that are requi­red in the metal busi­ness and also won’t get a credit becau­se you are not credit-worthy or becau­se the­re’s no serious bank around, then you have to look for alter­na­ti­ve solu­ti­ons and make do with what is avail­ab­le. If the pro­blem could be sol­ved by being rich and just impor­ting a wel­ding machi­ne from let’s say a Chi­ne­se manu­fac­tu­rer, the Afri­can eco­no­my would­n’t bene­fit as much as when the­se machi­nes are pro­du­ced local­ly. As a con­se­quence of that, ppl are instinc­tively doing the right thing by deve­lo­ping their own solu­ti­ons and pro­vi­ding busi­ness oppor­tu­nities for a local mar­ket. It’s a natu­ral pro­cess that may not be that visi­ble, or may­be even con­dem­ned by tho­se who still belie­ve that supe­ri­or pro­ducts have to come from the outside.

This btw also hap­pen­ed in Zim­bab­we some time ago when local sup­ply of sani­ta­ry towels was limi­ted and women (not men) had to come up with their own solu­ti­ons, e.g. using natu­ral mate­ri­als. Now, from a tech­ni­cal (pro­cess engi­nee­ring) point of view, it’s much easier to tre­at natu­ral (bio­de­grad­able) pro­ducts than plastics — at least when it comes to the stuff ppl are flus­hing down their toi­lets. So the­se alter­na­ti­ve sani­ta­ry towels may not be as con­ve­ni­ent as tho­se from the super­mar­ket, but they are avail­ab­le and afford­a­ble. By the end of the day, pro­ducts that work for cus­to­mers will pre­vail. Ever­ything else is just luxu­ry and filed under “nice-to-have”.

Alas­dair Munn also put it nice­ly on his blog:

“Tech­no­lo­gy solu­ti­ons com­ing out of Afri­ca are built with pur­po­se, against objec­ti­ves and wit­hin the bounda­ries of their resour­ces. It is a solu­ti­ons based approach. It is also a strip­ped down approach whe­re only the rele­vant resour­ces and tools are used. Simp­le works becau­se less can go wrong and if it does go wrong, simp­le is easier to fix. The­re is a shift in the way tools and tech­no­lo­gies are loo­ked at.”

I belie­ve that the­re’s no mas­ter plan for deve­lo­p­ment in Afri­ca, and even less a need for a well-meant gui­de­li­ne from the out­side. The­re’s no one-way solu­ti­on and this Afri­ca­Ga­the­ring cer­tain­ly was­n’t meant to look for solu­ti­ons “on how to help” etc. etc.. Peop­le in need know how to help them­sel­ves as most governments on this pla­net only exist to set a legal frame­work. We, the peop­le, have to bring the chan­ge we want and so it was a valu­able oppor­tu­ni­ty to team up with other like-min­ded folks during Afri­ca­Ga­the­ring who have unders­tood that less help and more busi­ness may be an inte­res­ting alter­na­ti­ve for a bet­ter way forward.

AOB: I spent less than 48h in Lon­don and met enough peop­le to whom I was intro­du­ced as “Kikuyu­mo­ja”. It still ama­zes me that ppl know about this blog.